PORTLAND, Ore. – There’s little doubt that Darlington Nagbe’s game in last Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake was the best performance by a Portland Timbers player in MLS.
But one question still lingers: What position is he?
Nagbe started at right midfield on Saturday because of an injury to usual starter Kalif Alhassan, but swapped places with Diego Chara 10 minutes into the game to move into the center. From his new position, the 21-year-old launched one attacking run after another, scoring Portland’s first goal four minutes into the second half.
Nagbe added a spectacular AT&T Goal of the Week candidate in the 65th minute and, by the end of the game, had moved up alongside Kris Boyd as a forward.
WATCH: Nagbe's stunner vs. RSL
And after sampling seemingly every position on the field, the young attacker must have a preference, right?
“Wherever coach puts me,” Nagbe said of his favored position after training Tuesday. “I played all three that game, mid, center-mid and forward. But I feel like getting different looks made it better for me and the team.”
The swap with Chara put Nagbe into a position he is naturally more suited to on account of his ability on the ball. But it was the nature of the game itself that dictated the move, according to head coach John Spencer.
“With his pace, most defensive midfielders in the country will struggle with him,” the Timbers boss said. “I just felt that 10 minutes into the game, he was a little bit too deep. There were a couple times we poked through the middle and Diego was on the end of a pass that I just felt if Darlington was there we would have got a different result.
"So that’s why I brought Diego to the right side of the diamond and put Darlington at the point. And I think it was a move that suited him.”
Spencer said Nagbe’s time at midfield was largely due to injuries. In addition to Alhassan, who was out nursing a groin injury, the Timbers have been without the full services of Cameroon international Franck Songo’o, while winger Sal Zizzo hasn’t played yet this season because of a knee injury.
“If we have them fit and healthy, he probably would have played up front from the start,” Spencer said. “For me, he does prefer to play in the middle whether it be as a second forward, whether it be partnering Kris Boyd outright, or just at the point of the diamond.
"He’s very, very adaptable, and that’s what good players do, they adapt to different situations at different positions. And anywhere in the attacking third he’s going to cause you problems.”
Nagbe said he hopes, no matter where on the field he is, that Saturday’s performance is a sign of things to come.
“It’s just one game though, but hopefully I can keep it going,” he said.
And with three goals in three games – already exceeding his total of two last year – Spencer is hoping Nagbe is embarking on something special.
“He’s just a quality footballer,” he said. “And I’ve said it time and time again that it’s just a matter of him having the belief to go and show what he’s capable of doing. But I don’t know if you’ll see a better performance – well you probably will see a better performance – but it was one of the best performances we’ve seen in a Portland Timbers uniform.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.